Before we head out to SXSW, we thought we’d chat with our fellow panelists to see what they view as the biggest opportunities and challenges specifically for smaller companies that are just getting started and don’t have big budgets or agencies. If you’re in Austin next week, be sure to swing by Ad Hacking for Startups (March 12th at 3:30pm). We’ll be sharing our thoughts and experiences on how to successfully market within our respective industries! But, getting back to our chat, we asked:

“Given that marketing dollars are limited, in what channels should startups invest first?”

Adam Berke, President of AdRoll

Although it’s not a channel unto itself, the first thing startups should invest in from a marketing perspective is a plan. Think about the traditional marketing funnel, and think about how you are going to address potential customers at the various stages. To boil it down, you can think of three phases:

1. Awareness and demand generation. How are you going to make people aware of your product?  What content and paid placement will catch your target customers attention? This is where you need to think about what topics your customers are interested in, and make sure you provide engaging and useful content related to those topics. Also, paid placement works!  Just don’t get sucked in to measuring awareness channels with conversion oriented metrics.

2. Nurturing and conversion. Once you’re on a prospect’s radar, how do you encourage them to commit? This is obviously where retargeting can play a big role. People shop around online and do research before they make a decision. It’s key to stay in front of them during this evaluation process

3. Ongoing engagement. It’s such a common pitfall to focus too heavily on acquisition, and totally forget about your existing customer base. It’s a well known axiom that it’s more cost effective to grow an existing customer relationship than it is to acquire a new one. Make sure you have channels in place to maintain a dialogue with your customers to keep them around and grow the relationship.  This is another place that retargeting can be useful, as well as email, and notifications for mobile apps.

No doubt your plan will change once you get going, but at least have a perspective about how you are going to address these three stages.  As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

Chris Lindland, CEO of Betabrand

They should take a good long look at the web and see what topics folks like to talk about and how they are talking about it. Companies should then shape their site, products, or services to create news within those communities.

Before we had any marketing dollars, we had a bunch of ideas. We decided to invest in the “webbiest” among them and generated a ton of press. Frankly, sometimes the best thing you can invest in are English majors. They can turn your business into stories bloggers want to talk about.”

 Joanna Lord, VP of Growth Marketing at SEOmoz

I’m going out on a limb here and say it wouldn’t be in a channel actually. If my marketing dollars are tight I’d invest in resources — full-stacked marketers, a good designer and a good developer. No channel is going to succeed if you don’t get a strong team behind it.

If I had to pick a channel to get started in, it would certainly be in the inbound arena. I’d start chipping away at a solid content strategy and get started on some social outreach to seed  influential relationships to help spread the good word.

Noah Kagan, Founder of AppSumo

There is no #1 channel. I always go free and dabble. Then I focus on the most effective ROI / time channel.